And Hardaway has been nothing short of sensational, averaging 19.1 points and 7.7 assists at week's end. He is quicker, thanks in part to the loss of 15 pounds, and he's tough and hungry for the ball with the game on the line. Hardaway's signature performance came on Dec. 29 against the Bucks in Milwaukee, on a night when Majerle and Mourning were injured and Miami dressed only eight players. Hardaway took control in the fourth quarter, scoring 18 points to lead Miami to a 95-94 win.
Then there's Majerle, 31, who was widely thought to be nearing the end of his career and whose scoring average had declined each of the last five seasons, from 17.3 in 1991-92 to 10.6 last year, when he played with the Cavaliers. "I never thought I was done, although most people did," he says. When Cleveland didn't offer Majerle the multiyear contract he thought he deserved, he joined the Heat for $8 million over three years. A tough defender who doesn't shy away from contact, Majerle has been a perfect fit in Riley's system, while averaging 12.7 points through Sunday.
The Heat's other key free agent, the 6'11" Brown, also feels he has something to prove. When John Calipari took over as Nets coach and executive vice president of basketball operations last summer, he said he had to rid the team of its mediocrity, so he didn't try to keep Brown, forward Armon Gilliam or guard Chris Childs. Brown took offense and apparently still does. "As far as mediocrity, I feel like it's still there," he says of New Jersey, which was 8-21 at week's end.
No one is more adept at stoking those kinds of fires than Riley. "I swear, every one of his [pregame speeches] has been inspirational," Majerle says. Against Sacramento, when Kings guard Mitch Richmond hit a three-pointer to tie the game at the end of the first overtime, the Miami players returned to the bench deflated. Riley took out one of his trademark blue index cards and wrote three words: FOR MEN ONLY. Miami won in the second overtime.
Riley's early transformation of the Heat is reminiscent of the job he did with the Knicks for four seasons through '94-95, taking a team with a few building blocks, ratcheting up its defense and turning it into a big winner faster than anyone expected. While he has a proven system, he is willing to adjust it when necessary. He's never been in love with the three-point shot—"I think if you live by that shot, you die by it," he has said—but the Heat possesses so many outside marksmen, particularly Hardaway, Lenard, Majerle and shooting guard Sasha Danilovic, that he has loosened the reins on treys. Through Sunday only Houston had more three-point attempts than Miami's 698.
The one place where the Heat has a low profile and doesn't want one is Miami, where it still plays before significant numbers of empty seats. The Heat has sold out the 15,200-seat Miami Arena only five times this season. Some of the players aren't happy with the tepid support of the fans who do attend. Mourning, who always seems to be angry about something, vented his wrath at the spectators on one occasion last month. "When things aren't going well for us, we get booed and hissed," he said. "That goes to show you, we're playing better when we're away from those people."
Or maybe the fans just figured out that the best way to help their team of road warriors is not to make them feel at home.